As the 2020 campaign season comes to a close, a variety of groups that promote civic engagement — including those with links to the restaurant world — are making last-minute efforts to get Chicagoans excited about participating in democracy. José Andrés’ charity World Central Kitchen has returned to the city and is collaborating with Chicago-area chef D’Andre Carter on the the Chefs for the Polls initiative, designed to bring free food to voters near polling places that predict huge turnouts, have seen long lines in the past, or face other logistical challenges.
D.C-based chef and restaurateur Andrés is nationally known for his charitable efforts. The celebrity chef has restaurants all around the country and has plans for two in Chicago. Carter, the executive chef at Evanston-based catering company Soul & Smoke, is a South Side native who specializes in barbecued meats and sides inspired by his grandmother’s Sunday dinners.
The Soul & Smoke team has been working with Andrés’ charity since March when they joined forces to feed South Side residents at the start of the pandemic, delivering meals to community spaces like the Montessori School of Englewood. Those efforts have continued, and Carter shows no signs of slowing after Election Day: “We’re going to do it as long as we can keep going,” he says.
Though he’s involved in other philanthropy, Carter says this is his first time supporting voting efforts. Soul & Smoke team members have been distributing comfort food like shrimp and grits and shrimp jambalaya at polling places throughout the early voting period, Carter says. He estimates they’ve handed out around 500 meals per day across the city over the past two weeks.
On Tuesday, Carter’s food truck is stationed outside the Dr. Martin Luther King Center on 43rd Street and Cottage Grove in Bronzeville. Team members will also drop off meals at several other polling places on the city’s West Side. The team from Chicago’s most famous Jewish deli — Manny’s — is also working with WCK to hand out corned beef, turkey, and vegetarian mushroom sandwiches to voters.
Fourth-generation owner Danny Raskin says Manny’s has also been working with the charity to feed vulnerable locals during the pandemic. He says WCK’s efforts to support struggling establishments like his by purchasing meals for hungry people instead of cooking them has made a positive impact on the deli during the pandemic.
“I think it’s important that all the different communities around Chicago and around the country are heard no matter what,” says Raskin. “It’s nice that [Chefs for the Polls] wasn’t tied to Republicans or Democrats — it’s tied to empowering the community to get people out and vote... It makes you feel really good, and you get to interact with people.”
The 2020 presidential election is particularly important to Carter in light of recent police brutality against Black people and systemic racism in the U.S., reflected in the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and subsequent protests. He’s also hopeful that the food will make people feel happy and upbeat about their voting experience. “We really want as a company to try and get as many people to vote as possible,” he says. “If we can get people to the polls to vote, we make sure some change happens.”
Thus far, Carter reports anecdotal success: he’s seen around 200 people come by who didn’t plan to vote but got in line once they heard about the food. “Once they get in there, it’s so easy — all they need is an ID,” he says. “They can register and vote on the spot, right there... We feel good on the inside about that.”
Long voting lines have become commonplace in the U.S. — a result of increased early voting, pandemic-related safety and cleaning protocols, fewer and less-experienced poll workers, and voter suppression. Other countries have successfully used food to excite voters while they wait, including Australia, where the “democracy sausage” has become a national phenomenon. In Chicago, many restaurants have taken to Election Day specials.
World Central Kitchen has also been feeding health care workers across the U.S. with meals prepared at restaurants that are struggling during the pandemic. Andrés’ efforts to support crisis relief with food have drawn international attention, and in 2018 he was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Recently, the charity donated more than three million meals to hurricane victims in Puerto Rico and fed the Grand Princess cruise ship’s quarantined passengers in California.
Raskin declined to say which presidential candidate will get his vote this year. Carter says he voted for Joe Biden.